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The coulda, woulda, shoulda Triple Crown winners

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 3:13 PM EDT, Sat June 9, 2012
I'll Have Another performs an exercise run on Thursday.
I'll Have Another performs an exercise run on Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey says many horses have won the Kentucky Derby, but not the Triple Crown
  • Why? It's really hard to do. Like I'll Have Another at Belmont Stakes, they were scratched
  • Many high-hopes horses have met last minute trouble, been denied Triple Crown, he says
  • Downey: Racing has good days and bad; I'll Have Another already forgotten

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

(CNN) -- Do you know who Fonso was? Or how about Hindoo?

Can you tell me what Joe Cotton did? Ben Brush? Judge Himes? George Smith? Paul Jones?

I can. Each of them won the Kentucky Derby horse race. (Each of them, by the way, was a horse, not a human being.)

OK, now can you tell me what each of them didn't do?

I can. Each of them did not go on to win horse racing's Triple Crown. I can also tell you why. Because it is a really hard thing to win, that's why.

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Bet you don't know Burgoo King.

Hahaha, he made Whoppers, I beat you to it. Laughing out loud here.

OK, now I will tell you the sweet and sad tale of Burgoo King, and how maybe he could have become one of the most famous racehorses of all time, a Secretariat, a Seabiscuit, a Man O' War.

In 1932, when a lot of people were depressed with a capital D, a lot of them were impressed by Burgoo King when he won the Kentucky Derby by three lengths and then the Preakness by a head. He and the 19-year-old boy in his saddle had a nice shot at winning the Triple Crown, which only two other horses (Sir Barton and Gallant Fox) had done.

No Triple Crown for Derby-winning horse
I'll Have Another Injures leg, retires
No more racing for "I'll Have Another"
I'll Have Another officially retires

How did he do?

Well, he didn't. Burgoo King was a no-go no-show. He skipped the Belmont Stakes entirely. Did not run. He was "scratched," as they say at the track, just as I'll Have Another was turned into I've Had Enough by his keepers on the eve of today's scheduled Belmont race.

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Would you like to know why? I have no idea. Some horse whisperers spread gossip that Burgoo King's paperwork did not get filled out in time. Others said he must have gotten hurt, but no one confirmed it. All anybody knows for sure is, Burgoo King sizzled, then fizzled. He would not run another race for two full years, and his young jockey was found in Lake Michigan, drowned.

Bet you don't know Tim Tam, either.

In 1958, when folks were giving thought to buying one of Ford's really cool new cars, the Edsel, a lot of them were impressed by Tim Tam when he took the Kentucky Derby with a tremendous stretch run, then ran first in the Preakness, as well. A few thousand folks laid bets that Tim Tam would do what no horse since the '40s had done: wear the Crown. But, alas, a bone that he fractured during the race caused poor Tim to hobble home in second place.

Fame, fortune, immortality ... a kingdom for any 3-year-old horse who could win the big three. Oh, to become another War Admiral, another Whirlaway, another Citation.

Bet you don't know Canonero II.

He was nothing special, a pretty decent runner in Venezuela, a long shot to say the least when he got into the 1971 Kentucky Derby and sat there in 18th place, going nowhere fast. But then, all of a sudden, here came Canonero II, galloping past them all, winning by nearly four lengths. And after that, why, there he was again, winning the Preakness in a record time.

A horse for the ages. That was him. All he needed to do was win that darn Belmont, and maybe he would have, if not for a foot infection that was to blame when he limped home behind Pass Catcher and two others, out of the money in fourth place, then out of sight, then out of mind.

Secretariat came along two years later and stole his thunder, not to mention his book and movie deals.

I went to the Belmont for the 2004 race. So did a throng of 120,139, the largest crowd in history for a New York sporting event. And why were we all there?

To see Smarty Jones.

He was going to do it. The first Triple Crown since 1979 and Affirmed was about to be his.

Silver Charm was going to do it in 1997, but he ran out of steam in the Belmont at the wire. Funny Cide was going to do it in 2003, but he slogged along in the mud and ran a hard-luck third.

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Ah, but sweet little Smarty, he couldn't miss. He was undefeated. He could run in the rain, as he demonstrated at Churchill Downs while taking the Derby by nearly three lengths. He could run Secretariat-style and leave everyone else gagging on his dust, as he showed at the Preakness while winning by more than 11 lengths.

A lock, that's what he was. "I got the horse right here," I sang that June 5, 2004, day, doing my "Guys and Dolls" bit, slapping a Racing Form against my palm.

My old crony Mark Kram, the great Philadelphia sportswriter, was by my side. "Who else do you like," he asked.

"Nobody else," I said.

"Come on," he cajoled, not liking the favorite's short odds. "Who else?"

I sized up the tote board, consulted the handicappers, studied my charts, played my hunch.

"Birdstone," I said.

He was 36-to-1. My poor pal Kram gave me the evil eye. He had a $20 bill that he didn't want to waste.

We put down a double sawbuck each. We waited for the trumpet to play, 10 minutes to post time. We observed a minute of silence for President Reagan, who passed away that same day. I said aloud that Birdstone definitely had a shot. I said to myself, "Smarty Jones could outrun that nag with three legs."

Smarty Jones ran second that day. He was caught in the final few strides by some four-legged history-wrecker called Birdstone.

I would see no Triple Crown won that day. Nor would I in 2008, when the 3-to-10 favorite Big Brown was a sure thing, can't miss, easy money. He finished ninth. Dead last.

Horse racing. I have had good days. I have had bad days. I'll have another and another. I thought Saturday would be a great day -- an unforgettable day for an unforgettable horse. But you know what? I've forgotten him already.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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